The offense wasn’t “bad” in an absolute sense -- on the whole, it largely matched expectations – but it didn’t exactly rise to the level the occasion demanded. (Raise your hand if you thought a Josh Nunes line of 15-of-32 for 215 yards with two touchdowns and two picks would be enough to beat USC.) The unit had a few bounce passes, its share of stalled drives, and more than its share of mistakes -- my personal favorite being the delay of game on the contest’s very first snap.
But the offensive line, as it has now for four straight years, did wear down USC on the ground. Players did step up to fill the playmaking void Andrew Luck left behind, with Stepfan Taylor launching his candidacy for Heisman runner-up while Zach Ertz showed that the Farm continues to play host to Tight End U. And, of course, the unit finished in style, with no turnovers (or missed field goals) the entire second half, and its last three drives going touchdown, touchdown, and 5:56. (Food for thought, stolen from the Twitter-sphere: Josh Nunes as Tim Tebow? Looks ugly throwing, but makes plays with his legs, makes one or two big passes per game, and is the definition of clutch.)
Moving on, an exhilarating final 20 minutes doesn’t change that there was a lot of ugly in the 40 preceding minutes. A quick tally: eight penalties for 68 yards, three missed field goals, fourth down headaches (USC was 3-of-4 not counting the last Hail Mary, Stanford didn’t deign to attempt a single fourth down), Cardinal wide receivers collectively caught three balls for 26 yards, and Stanford burned two second-half timeouts because of miscommunication.
So there’s plenty of room for improvement. In fact, where we stand today, it’s hard to see exactly where the ceiling is, because that’s how good Stanford’s defense was. Simply put, Stanford’s defense was national-championship caliber. Yes, USC was missing their All-American center and All-American running back. The Trojans still have NFL stars in the making up and down that roster, and Stanford still looked like Alabama against their archrival. The carnage is unbelievable: four sacks, 1-of-13 on third downs and three forced turnovers. Or, looking at yardage: 280 total yards allowed, 28 rushing yards on 26 carries, 78 yards allowed in the second half, and just 16 yielded in the fateful fourth quarter. And Matt Barkley looks about as likely to win the Heisman as he is to beat Stanford while in a USC jersey. (Neither are technically impossible, with a potential rematch in the conference title game looming, but I’d love to take bets.)
Perhaps the most shocking factoid of all from tonight is this: one team scored its touchdowns on hard-fought one-yard runs (one of them illegal). The other scored on a 59-yard run, a 23-yard screen pass and a 37-yard seam route that collectively left a half-dozen defenders grasping for air. Somehow, someway, Stanford was the more explosive team tonight. That speaks volumes, above all, to an athleticism that Stanford has never before had in its secondary.
True, if Stanford is not as bad as she looked in her worst game this season, we need more proof before we conclude she is as good as she looked in her best game. Plus, all the toughies are on the road this year, and the Pac-12 does look up.
Still, 2012 could mark the third straight year Stanford enters its Oregon tilt undefeated. It would be the first time, however, Stanford’s defense can credibly go toe-to-toe with any starting 11 Oregon – or, after tonight, any college team in the country -- trots out.
Stanford’s defense shut down what could be the nation’s No. 1 offense. Defense wins championships. Folks, turns out we have a national title contender on our hands.
That’s our take. Here is what other folks are saying.
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